Being very lovable and active pets, ferrets make great companions!
Ferrets are extremely playful, very curious, love to go exploring, and love to play games. The name ferret comes from the latin word “furritus” meaning “little thief”. Though ferrets have a very curious nature, they are hardy animals that can contribute to many treasured memories.
“Yoshimi” Chocolate Ferret Photo © Animal-World:
Ferrets can be just as great of a companion as a dog or cat, but do need a lot of attention and care. Their average life span is about 5 – 7 years though they can live up to 11 or more years if given good care. They can also be well trained.
Dr. Jungle shares what Yoshimi (pictured to the right) has to say about himself! “Yoshimi means ‘good-beautiful’ in Japanese and I am the cutest ferret ever! Especially ’cause I’m a chocolate ferret and have the cutest little brown nose. I love to catch humans off guard by crawling up their pant legs!”.
For information about Small Animals and their care visit:
Guide to a Happy, Healthy Small Animal
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Mustelidae
- Genus: Mustela
- Species: furo
Ferrets are carnivorous mammals that are members of the Mustilidae family, the same family as the mink, otter, weasel, martin, and ermine. They were domesticated several thousand years ago for the purpose of disposing of pests such as rats and mice and to help hunters “ferret” out game from their burrows. They were first introduced into the USA from Spain in the 1870’s.
Where they originated at is debated. There is evidence that it may have been in Egypt, but it is more likely in Greece or England because the climate in those places isn’t as hot.
Note: Today’s domesticated ferret is NOT the wild
North American Black-Footed Ferret which is now nearly extinct!
Ferrets are long and furry animals that will generally live 5 to 7 years, or even 11 years or more if well taken care of. Males are generally about twice as big as females. They can weigh up to 5 pounds while females usually don’t get more than 3 pounds. From the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, males will grow to a length of 21-24 inches and females 16-18 inches. Ferrets have scent glands all over their bodies which secrete odors as a form of protection.
Their haircoat is shiny and thick. Ferrets have guard hairs which are longer and rougher, and an undercoat which is softer and usually a different color than the guard hairs. Their coats come in many different patterns and colors. Colors include dark and light brown, cream, red, gray, and white. The most popular coloration is the sable which looks similar to a racoon, having a “mask” that is a band or a V shape across their eyes.
Housing / Environment:
A ferret’s habitat should include his own cage or his own room of the house, as well as other designated areas of the house and/or outside in which he can explore. A cage should be at least 24 inches wide, 24 inches long, and 18 inches high. Usually open wire cages work the best as they provide good ventilation, are indestructible, and are easily cleaned. Make sure the the wire mesh floor is no larger than 1/4″ so they don’t hurt their feet. You can put towels or old clothes down to cover some of the open mesh wire. Make sure that the cage contains a food and water area, a litter box, and a sleeping area.
Ferrets like to sleep in a nest that is dark, warm, and dry, so think about soft materials for the sleeping area. Some good and simple items such as old cotton towels or a cut off pant leg work well. Some good nests available at pet stores are cloth tubes, tents and hammocks. A nesting box with soft clean hay or straw works well for youngsters that may still be chewing and might chew on the cloth, but for mature ferrets, the cloth works great. Avoid using cedar and pine shavings because they have been known to cause respiratory ailments.
Make one area of cage a litter box area. Use a litter box that is high on 3 sides, with one low side so it is easily accessible for the ferret, and clean it out daily. Don’t use clay litters as ferrets like to burrow and play in the litter and the dust is damaging to their fur. A biodegradable pelleted cat litter will work fine and is better for the environment than clay litters.
Ferrets should also be given other areas to live and explore in. Give them at least a few hours a day to roam around designated areas of the house and/or backyard. Keep litter boxes around these areas also, to reduce the occurrence of accidents (ferrets won’t generally make a great effort to go in search of a litter box). Also make sure that he can access his cage in order to get food and water.
See more about their environment under Activities – Exercise and Play below.
Care and Feeding:
Ferrets are strict carnivores and much has been learned in recent years about what they need for a long, healthy life. In their natural environment they eat whole prey. This includes all parts of the killed animal. They do not eat grains, fruits and vegetables (though they may get a tiny amount of this because it was what their prey had just eaten), and they cannot digest the fiber present in these foods. They aren’t very efficient in absorbing nutrients from their diet and the food passes through them rather quickly, so they eat small amounts often and will stash extra food away to be eaten later. They get their energy from fat (not carbohydrates) and from meat protein (not vegetable proteins). Ferrets require a diet that is highly concentrated with fat, has highly digestible meat, and has minimal carbohydrates.
As ferrets in nature are carnivorous predators, the most balanced and natural diet to feed ferrets is a whole prey diet. Appropriate sized prey animals include mice, rats, or chicks which can be purchased frozen or live. The next best choice to feeding a whole prey diet is to feed a natural prepared ferret food, a balanced raw carnivore diet. Many pet food companies are realizing that heat processed food may not be the answer for a natural diet and have responded, developing production of raw, balanced, organic pet foods. These diets are available in either freeze-dried or frozen form.
For many years the ferret staple has been dry processed ferret diets, but you must be careful in choosing this type of food, read the label closely before purchasing. Much has been done to improve the quality of these foods to be appropriate for the ferrets unique dietary needs, however many still contain large quantities of carbohydrates and sugars that can be detrimental to the long and healthy life of your pet. Be sure to read the ingredients, the first three ingredients listed should be meat-based.
Dog foods and vegetarian-type pet foods should be avoided because of the high level of vegetable proteins and fiber in them. Avoid diets that are composed of vegetables and grains. Cat food too will not suffice because they do not have enough protein in them. Use a heavy food dish to put the food in so he cannot knock it over easily, and always put it in the same place.
Ferrets love to have treats, just be sure they are appropriate for your pet to keep it healthy and promote a long life. They like protein so raw meat scraps or raw eggs are wonderful treats. Cooked meat and eggs can be given but are more difficult for your pet to digest. Freeze dried dog or cat treats that are made from meat or muscle can be offered. Commercially prepared ferret treats are often inappropriate as many contain mostly sweeteners or grains, and these can create a health risk. Be sure to read the label and avoid treats that are not meat based. Raw fruits or vegetables are high in fiber and should be offered very sparingly if at all, and they must be cut into pieces that are 1/4″ square or smaller or they can result in serious health problems. Dairy products, nuts, and sugar should definitely be avoided. Make sure to remove any uneaten fresh food each day to keep the feeding area clean and to avoid the ferret eating rotten food.
Another big thing is water – ferrets must have access to water at all times. Put water in a heavy dish or in a water bottle attached to the side of the cage. Always put it in the same place so the ferret will know where to go when he needs a drink.
For a healthy ferret being fed a balanced raw, freeze-dried or whole prey diet, vitamin supplements are not necessary. Even those being fed a high quality dry ferret diet will generally not need routine supplements, though occasionally a ferret on this diet can develop a dry haircoat or dry skin due to a lack of sufficient fat in the diet. In this case an oral fatty acid supplement can be helpful, though you should check with a veterinarian first to make sure that this is the problem and be given the proper dosage.
Make sure to thoroughly clean food and water dishes daily with hot water.
Ferrets don’t need a lot of grooming, you do not need to bathe a healthy ferret. They will groom their haircoat and keep it clean and tidy themselves and over bathing can actually cause a dry haircoat and dry skin condition. They have a natural musky odor to the skin, but unneutered ferrets have an especially strong odor, not only from the skin and haircoat but also from the urine. Choosing to neutering your pet will prevent this.
Brush your ferret lightly on occasion to keep his coat looking healthy and also to help him shed his coat (which happens twice a year).
Some ferrets over one year of age can develop hairballs. This is often found in pets that are not being fed whole prey diets, which help move the hair through their intestines. In this case a hairball laxative can be given about every third day. A commercial hairball laxative consists of vaseline with some sort of a sweetener. To avoid the sweetener, put a pea-sized amount of vaseline on a piece of the food or place a small amount on a paw for your pet to lick off.
Clipping his nails once a month or so is also a good idea to help keep them from getting too long and catching on bedding or carpet. Only clip a little ways back on the nail to avoid cutting the blood vessel in it.
Activities – Exercise and Play:
Ferrets in the wild spend lots of their time in sleeping in their burrows, eating, and in hunting. Although they are nocturnal by nature, they will adapt well to what your schedule is. Ferrets are extremely playful and curious, so as long as they are allowed to run free around the house or yard for a few hours a day, they should get plenty of exercise which is vital to their health.
Ferrets love to play games with their owners such as hide and seek, tag, and tug-of-war. Many ferrets will also take an interest in baby toys, cat toys and scratching posts, and then try to hide their favorite toys. Avoid latex or foam rubber toys, they will chew on them and if they ingest them it can be fatal for the ferret. Also be careful of things like rubber soles on sneakers and stereo cords, anything with rubber or latex. Since ferrets are so curious, it is necessary to ferret-proof the areas in the house he will be exploring. Put stiff cardboard around the vents and openings of dishwashers, refrigerators, and cabinets to keep him from getting into them. You can put down heavy plastic floor covers to help prevent your ferret for ‘digging’ your carpet.
Watch out for sofa springs and reclining chairs also, as ferrets love to explore these areas and can easily be crushed. Because they like to burrow, ferrets will often try to burrow or ‘dig’ into the bottom of furniture or mattresses, often eating the rubber stuffing, as mentioned above this can be fatal. You can prevent this digging by covering or blocking these areas with plexiglass or thin pieces of plywood.
Make sure that screens on doors and windows are strong and are well-latched, because if your ferret escapes outside, he will not last long. Also keep rubber and foam items (things that could potentially be eaten!) and electrical cords off the ground, and keep plants up high where he can’t get to them.
Ferrets are very sociable creatures and love to be part of a group. They will usually get along with any other ferrets – whether they be female or male. The only exception to this is un-neutered males. If males are not neutered they will often fight with each other during breeding season, and this should be avoided by not putting un-neutered males together.
They are also great companions for many of the other household members including humans, dogs, and cats. Ferrets love to play and romp with them.
When first introducing pets to each other, make sure it is in neutral ground – not near one or the other’s sleeping or eating areas or they may associate the other animal as a threat to them. Try having each animal sleep with something of the other’s (such as a towel or shirt) that has their scent on it, so that when they do meet, they’ve already been “acquainted” with each other.
Pets that should especially be watched when they are first introduced include rodents (these are ferrets natural prey) and small hunting dogs, because they may see the ferrets as game.
Handling and Training:
Ferrets are intelligent little animals and can be trained to do quite a few things from basic “must-do’s”, to tricks that are fun to teach and watch.
There are two things ferrets should be taught as kits:
First, kits need to learn not to nip. Ferrets tend to be rather rough (especially when they are young), so they need to learn what is acceptable rough-housing, and what is not. One good way to teach ferrets not to nip is to put something bad tasting on your fingers (such as Bitter Apple Spray) so your ferret associates your fingers with bad taste. Or you can just grab him by the scruff of his neck and tell him “no” every time he nips you. Whatever you do, don’t hit him! This can scare him and make him bite even more.
Second, the other essential training ferrets need is to be litter box trained. This will help reduce accidents in the future when he is running around the house, and will make it easier to clean up after him in the first place. Ferrets will naturally use one area of the cage (usually a corner) as a bathroom spot. Notice where this is, and put the litter box there. They will learn to associate the litter box with where they are supposed to go to the bathroom at.
When teaching your ferret to use the litter box outside of the cage, watch him closely and when you see him start to go in a corner, quickly put him in the litter box. Continue doing this every time he backs into a corner. You must have patience with your pet, because this could take a while. Also, you may want to put a few feces in the litter box that’s outside the cage to remind him what it’s for.
Ferrets can be taught several tricks – similar to dogs:
The training of these tricks is also similar to dogs – you use treats as a reward. Good tricks include rolling over, sitting up to beg, coming to his name, and hiding things.
Some ferrets enjoy being taken on walks, in which case you’ll want to purchase a harness and leash so that you can keep an eye on your pet and keep him safe.
Breeding ferrets is a huge commitment and should not be taken lightly. Once you decide that you wish to breed ferrets you’ll have to decide whether you want to have your own un-neutered male, or if you want to bring your female to someone else’s male.
One problem of having your own un-neutered male is that they are more aggressive and have a strong odor. It is also difficult to make sure that the male is in season at the same time as the female is in heat if they are living indoors. It is a good idea to breed ferrets in an outdoor environment so that their bodies run on a more natural cycle. Females become sexually mature at about 6 months and are usually in heat from March to August.
The ferrets should be kept in separate cages until breeding time. You can tell that the ferrets are ready to mate when the female’s vulva is swollen with a slight discharge and the male’s testicles are fully extended.
The male will be very aggressive with the female, biting her around the neck to arouse her and make her passive so he is able to mate with her. The breeding could take several hours, but it is recommended to keep them together for about 3 days to ensure pregnancy. The female’s vulva should reduce in size in a few days if she is pregnant.
Gestation time for ferrets is six weeks. The baby ferrets (called kits) are born with their eyes closed and a short covering of fur. Some mother ferrets can be rather snappy after birth and not want their kits messed with, but others don’t seem to mind. The kits are weaned after another six weeks.
Start picking up and handling the kits at 3 weeks of age – that way they can start to get to know you and become accustomed to humans. During weaning, keep a bowl of dry ferret food soaked in water in the cage so the kits can start experimenting with hard food.
The largest problem with breeding ferrets is the potential health problems of the female. They sometimes have trouble giving birth and have to be taken to a veterinarian.
Keep an eye on the female during birthing. If her eyes look glossy and she seems weak it may be because she’s trying to give birth to two babies at a time, or her contractions simply aren’t strong enough to allow her to give birth. Female ferrets are also prone to mastitis, which is an infection of the milk glands. Check the teats during the whole six weeks she is nursing to make sure they are soft. If they become hard, you’ll need to take her to a vet.
As with all animals, ferrets can become ill or hurt. You can do your best to avoid this by taking good care of your pet. Make sure he gets proper nutrition, grooming, and exercise. This will keep your ferret in the best of conditions and reduce the chances of him getting sick.
Make sure that your ferret’s designated play areas around the house are properly “ferret-proofed” to reduce the chances of him injuring himself during play. Ferrets are commonly involved in accidents because they are so curious and tend to get into things they shouldn’t. If your ferret endures serious injuries such as back injuries, severe bleeding, broken bones, or poisoning, it should be taken to a veterinarian.
Routine Care: Ferrets must be vaccinated for Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) annually, as well as Rabies. There are strict laws governing these vaccinations and your veterinarian can advise you in regarding what is required in your area.
Ferrets up to two years of age should have an annual examination by a veterinarian, and those over two years benefit by an examination every 6 months. Again, discuss the health of your ferret with a veterinarian and follow their recommended examinations, vaccinations, and testing.
Signs of Illness: Signs that indicate your ferret may not be feeling well include: watery eyes, listless attitude, short and broken whiskers, abscesses, excessive scratching and biting the skin, unnatural feces, anal bleeding, underweight, and black substance in the ears.
Some of the illnesses common to ferrets:
As ferrets age, particularly over two years of age, they are prone to a variety of diseases such as heart disease, tumors, adrenal disease, and cancers such as insulinoma and various neoplasias. Other common illnesses include:
Human Influenza – “Flu”: The human ‘flu’ virus is very contagious to ferrets and vice versa. They don’t actually get ‘colds’ though, as this is another set of viruses. The ferret with the flu will have watery eyes and a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and a fever. Like us, they will generally feel miserable for a few days and then usually recover. Do not handle your ferret if you have the flu, especially a young ferrets as it is most dangerous to them. Make sure your ferret gets plenty of rest and has plenty of water.
Canine Distemper: Ferrets are highly susceptible to this disease. The best treatment for it is prevention. Make sure your ferret is vaccinated against it yearly. If he contracts this disease, he will most likely die.
Rabies: Rabies is spread through saliva making contact to an a open wound, generally through a bite. This is a human health issue, there are strict local and state regulations that govern the vaccination of most domestic pets for rabies. Be sure to talk to your veterinarian about rabies vaccines for your ferret.
Fatal Anemia of Female Ferrets, Aplastic Anemia: This is an occurrence that happens quite often in females that are not spayed or bred repeatedly. Make sure that your female ferret is spayed and de-scented before she is 6 months old. If she is allowed to go into heat without being bred, there is about a 90% chance she will die.
Foreign Bodies in the Stomach or Intestine – Constipation: If it appears that your ferret is constipated or is not producing feces at all, it is an indication that there is internal blocking in the intestine. Other indications include lethargy, extreme dehydration, abdomen pain, seizures, and even death. Your ferret may have swallowed something that cannot be digested – such as a small piece of rubber or foam. Also ferrets over one year of age can develop large masses of hair in the stomach. These problems can be averted by paying close attention to the environment of the ferret, feeding the appropriate diet, and providing a vaseline type laxative as described above under Care and Feeding. If you pet develops these symptoms, they indicate an emergency situation and your ferret should be taken to a veterinarian for surgery.
Diarrhea: If your ferret has watery droppings and appears to have diarrhea, then the cause is most likely from having products with milk in them, or from a rapid change in diet. Stop giving your pet treats and make sure there is plenty of water available to him. If the condition does not occur to clear up in a few days, he may need to go to a veterinarian.
Fleas: Fleas are larger than mites, but cause the same scratching and discomfort. Look for little black specks under the fur and on the skin. Keep in mind that healthy pets are more resistant to fleas.
The best way to naturally control fleas is as simple as a flea comb, hot soapy water, and a good vacuum cleaner. A home remedy used for dogs and cats is to season their food with brewer’s yeast and garlic, a natural flea repellant. The use of a cat treatment flea dip can be harmful, though it is sometimes suggested. Flea products are known to have caused deaths and illness in pets, so despite strong warning labels, we are hesitant to recommend them.
Availability/Purchasing your Ferret:
Ferrets are generally available, however there are some states and municipalities which ban them or require licensing to own and/or breed them. Be sure to check your state and local restrictions before acquiring a ferret.
When considering purchasing a ferret as your new pet, make sure you are ready for the commitment of time and care that it will need. Look for signs of a healthy ferret. It should have bright clear eyes, clear nose, a soft glossy and clean coat, and not be underweight. Check to make sure the ears are clean and that the teeth aren’t broken. Ferrets should have a playful attitude, be gentle, and be curious. These are all good signs of a healthy ferret.
Whether you get a male or female ferret is totally up to preference – they will both usually make great pets and don’t differ much in behavior patterns. It is likewise with color – choose what you like. It is a good idea to make sure your new ferret is de-scented and neutered or spayed, unless you plan on breeding. This is especially important for females, due to their developing fatal anemia if they go into heat and are not bred.
Young ferrets and older ferrets can both be good choices as a new pet. Getting a young one will require a lot of training and discipline, and youngsters tend to be rougher until they tame down. If you do choose to get a young ferret, get one that is 6 to 8 weeks old. The advantages of adopting an older ferret are that it may already be tame and have the discipline and training.
You may also consider getting more than one ferret, as they are sociable animals and love company. Most ferrets will get along with each other, but make sure all males are neutered – or there may be fighting.
After purchasing your ferret, you may want to bring him to your veterinarian for a check-up and to get procedures such as vaccinations, de-scenting, and neutering/spaying done if they are not already done. Yearly vaccinations against canine distemper and regular checkups with a veterinarian are also important for you ferret.
Featured Image Credit: ambquinn, Pixabay